by Lynn Wilhite
"Quality television." To an inane culture that praises the banality of shows like "Blossom" and "America's Funniest Home Videos" the phrase is usually nothing more than an oxymoron. But every now and then, if we're lucky, fate throws together a group of exceptionally bright and talented people and we, the television audience, are allowed to revel in the results of their creative efforts. Some memorable examples of this phenomenon are shows like: The Dick Van Dyke Show, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, and thirtysomething. Yes, it says thirtysomething; you can stop rubbing your eyes now.
The common thread in all the aforementioned shows is a quintessential trait that is imperative to quality television: intelligently written, timeless characters.
And arguably, the most clever, intriguing, bizarre character on television is thirtysomething's Miles Drentell.
In 1987, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, two smart, creative guys in their mid-thirties who also happened to be writers and producers, pitched an idea to ABC.
Much to their terror ABC bought it. The concept was a show about "a group of people, all of a certain age, who knew just enough about life to be totally confused by it." Interestingly, the two main characters, Michael and Elliot ( played by Ken Olin and Tim Busfield ) are two smart, creative guys in their mid-thirties who own an advertising agency. Neat parallel, huh? Anyway, near the end of the shows second season, due to a series of foreseeable mishaps, ( Michael and Elliot were immensely talented, but were lousy businessmen ) the agency is forced to close shop. Unemployed, our neurotic, well-dressed heroes were lured into working for a high-profile, high-dollar, rival ad agency -- D.A.A. Enter Miles Drentell, C.E.O. of Drentell, Arthur, Ashby.
Miles ( played by David Clennon ) was the demonseed of Herskovitz and Zwick, but it was senior writer/producer Joseph Dougherty who brought Miles to fiendish heights with his impeccably cunning and perceptive dialogue. "We finally figured out how to make Miles talk which could be difficult at times because basically you're dealing with someone from another planet." Dougherty stated. Another planet?
Another galaxy is more like it!
Miles Drentell possesses a frighteningly innate ability to manipulate language in a style all his own. This is not the type of man who engages in flaccid conversation. Every word is like a precisioned weapon. Sometimes the words are warning shots that just slightly graze the soul:
Michael: ( to Miles ) Listen, I want you to know that we've tried to work with your concept, but it's not working. I'm willing to bust my ass for you, but I have to be able to believe in the campaign. So we're going to try it my way.
Miles: Michael, you surprise me. I knew you were principled. It's one of the quaint, old-world things that I halfway like about you. But I didn't know you liked taking stupid risks.
And other times the words strike with decimating accuracy:
Michael: You know, Miles, I don't like you. I'm not kidding. I mean it. I really don't like you.
Miles: ( smiling ) I'm a little hazy on what it is you expect me to do with this information.
Michael: I'm just being honest.
Miles: Am I suppose to be hurt or something?
Michael: I'm just telling you the truth.
Miles: No, you said you were being honest, not truthful. You told me your opinion, you didn't give me any facts. And your opinion, as such, has no weight. No significance. No relevance. But I do find the "fact" that you think I should care what your opinion is of me rather pathetic. Sorry if that insults you. I'm just being honest.
If Joe Dougherty is responsible for Miles' imposing use of poetic text, it is David Clennon who utilizes every opportunity to bring the verse to life. "One of the reasons Miles sounds the way he sounds, is because of the kind of actor Clennon is."
Dougherty explained to me. "He is completely committed to the text of the character."
Clennon lends his physical stature, methodical gestures and facetious, wide-eyed expressions to the essence of Miles, but it is the actor's uncanny control of semantics that give Miles Drentell the ability to pontificate quite unlike anyone else on television:
Miles: ( speaking to Michael ) Two days ago I was in Osaka, at a foundry where they make these huge temple bells. Fascinating. The Buddhist monks come and throw prayers etched on pieces of metal into the molten steel before they pour the bell. When it cools and comes out of the mold, the master of the foundry strikes it once and only once before it is delivered to the temple. I was there when they struck one of those bells. It's the deepest sound you've ever heard. You feel it here, in the sternum, more than you hear it.
Drentell is the embodiment of contradiction. He is the personification of evil in an Armani suit. He is far too sophisticated to be just another antagonist. With Miles there is always a hidden agenda, another game of cat and mouse or at least a variation of it:
Elliot: ( to a grinning Drentell ) Gee, Miles, you look like the cat who just ate...another cat.
It isn't that Miles is a horrible person. Well, not always. Miles is a man who knows exactly what he wants at all times and acts with no apparent indecision. He is calculating and exquisitely self-controlled which also makes him impossible to read:
Michael: Speculation is pointless with Miles Drentell. He's like a bear; you can never tell what he's thinking.
When it comes to business, Drentell is an infinitely, intelligent man who surrounds himself with equally intelligent people. He describes himself as "more catalyst than employer" and it's exactly this ability that allows him to manipulate people who possess an entirely different value system than his own. Michael may see Miles as someone who is totally skewed in terms of personal priorities, but when it comes to advertising, Drentell is the man to adhere to:
Michael: ( referring to Miles ) He's got such an attitude.
Elliot: He can afford one. That's D.A.A. out there, Michael. An agency so cool they don't even have to be in New York.
Of course Miles ultimate purpose for existing is to challenge Michael's integrity. Drentell is so unrelenting in his opinion of himself and so intuitively decisive that he forces you to reevaluate and question your own motivation:
Michael: I've been debating about this. Uh, I want to apologize for my wife.
What she said last night.
Miles: Did she ask you to apologize?
Michael: Well, that really isn't the point, is it?
Miles: No, it isn't. I like your wife, Michael. She reminds me of someone.
Michael: Really, who?
Miles: You. We marry ourselves Michael. Starting out in step linked like a man and his reflection. Then the reflection starts to make some moves on it's own. Revolt of the shadow. The trick is staying in sync.
Michael: How do you do that?
Miles: First you have to figure out which side of the mirror you're actually on.
What we are left with, in the end, is a brilliant character who is a metaphor for much of the deviousness that exists in our world, in Michael and in ourselves. Let's face it, there's a little Miles Drentell in all of us. Sometimes more than we care to admit. The dark side that we fight to acknowledge, that we fear. And that's how he wants it. Miles lives for the intimidation of it all, for maintaining the upper hand. The corporate devil bargaining for your soul:
Miles: What can I do for you, Michael? What do you want from me?
Michael: Something you're not going to give me.
Miles: And what's that?
Michael: An invitation. I want you to ask us if we'd like to come to work for you.
Miles: Instead of what?
Michael: Instead of our begging for it.
Miles: You ask me, I ask you, either way you end up here. What difference does it make?
Michael: ( smiling ) I took your advice; read Nashiru on the art of management. He tells the story of two samurai warriors standing in the rain, swords out, each ready to strike. But neither of them moves. They just stand there in the storm, poised.
Michael: You tell me.
Miles: Because whoever moves first loses the advantage.
Michael: So they stand there getting soaked, accomplishing nothing. Stupid way to make a living, isn't it?
Miles: Why don't the two of you ( Michael and Elliot ) come in and we'll have a more substantive discussion?
Michael: Sounds like a good idea.
Miles: It is. Remember: you came to me.
This is the world of Miles Drentell; his creation, his realm, and ultimately you're just along for the ride.